How European cities address racial equity, statues, and the politics of choosing to not forget - a memoir

During my recent Marshall Memorial Fellowship with The German Marshall Fund of the United States, I had the opportunity to learn how European cities solve similar challenges we face in Chicago in the context of the transatlantic relationship and our shared national interests. The German Marshall Fund was founded in 1972 as a non-partisan, non-profit organization by a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to the assistance of the Marshall Plan, which provided economic assistance to rebuild western Europe after World War II. The German Marshall Fund created the Marshall Memorial Fellowship in 1982 to introduce emerging leaders from both sides of the Atlantic to relevant policy issues. The fellowship involved six months of preparation through readings, conference calls, and twenty four days of travel to Washington D.C., Brussels, London, Barcelona, Bucharest and Berlin.

Each city we visited had a local coordinator who plotted our itinerary and navigated us through meetings and site visits. Scheduled programming was punctuated with a few hours allotted for personalized meetings with professionals of our choosing. I found many common themes that were persistent throughout my journey as each city struggled to live out its own interpretation of freedom and democracy in the context of their unique national identities. The following is a summary of observations, reflections and conversations that may be useful for leadership, planning and policy in the Chicago region.

The Transatlantic Relationship and City Leadership

The transatlantic relationship between the United States and Europe is built on a system of treaties that support the shared goals of both nations. The relationship is established on the philosophy that nations have no permanent friends and allies; they have permanent interests. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is perhaps the most important alliance that underpins the transatlantic relationship. Article 5 of NATO is particularly important as it gives the treaty teeth and contains the critical principle of collective defense. This means that an attack against one of the 29 member countries is an attack against all NATO allies. It says if one country is threatened, other nations will commit their resources and troops if needed toward their defense. Each member commits to paying 2 percent of its GDP for membership. Many European countries however have not been paying this full amount for years.

The threat of retrenchment by the US is of great concern to the EU. EU members rely on the US to stand by Article 5 for their collective security. In response to the lack of parity in NATO contributions, the US President has been stridently critical of non-paying members. As a result, many EU countries now question the commitment of the White House to uphold Article 5 in the event of an attack. This is especially concerning considering real and present threats from countries like Russia, with numerous troops along NATO member borders in addition to being a cyber-attack risk. In response, some countries like Germany and the UK are preparing for the prospect of a future without durable partnership with the United States.

Another response to the lack of clear commitments to the transatlantic relationship at the national level is the rise of local leadership by cities. Cities across the world are stepping up to fill leadership voids and pursue goals consistent with their shared interests in spite of national leadership. Some are calling this an age of localism and subnationalism as local actors like mayors and governors are working together to solve issues like climate change and immigration. In the United States we’ve seen numerous mayors show solidarity with the Paris Agreement, for example, even as retrenchment has occurred at the federal level. Several recently renewed their commitment to achieving climate goals at the Global Covenant of Mayors North American Climate Summit in Chicago in 2017. US and European cities are also showing leadership on immigration policies, in many cases in opposition to national governments through mechanisms like “sanctuary cities”. These cities are enacting policies that resist federal enforcement of immigration laws and establish a welcoming environment for immigrants. London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s #LondonIsOpen and Chicago’s One Chicago campaigns reinforce local commitments to supporting immigrants and refugees at the local level. In addition to climate change and immigration, US and European cities should continue to be bold and look for ways to stand together to protect our threatened democracies but we also must not abdicate responsibility from our national leaders and must continue to demand their commitment on these important issues.

Populism and Immigration

The tableau of populism is etched on spurious imagery of a golden past that glorifies national fidelity over inclusion. This is evinced by rhetoric in the US that prioritizes nostalgia for a mid-century post-World War II America when immigrants and Blacks were controlled through a system of policies that enforced White supremacy. Anti-outsider populist zeitgeist is being seen throughout Europe as well. The Vlaams Belang party is a Flemish nationalist party in the Brussels Parliament whose leadership has questioned the number of Jews murdered during the holocaust, suggested that Muslim women wearing the hijab be deported, and seeks the complete succession of Flanders from Belgium. Austria has a far-right governing party whose antecedents date back to Hitler-era Nazis, and roughly 80 EU members currently have Nazi backgrounds. The US President likewise has made isolating immigrants, banning Muslims, and enforcing deportation main tenets of his acrimonious policy message.

Populist frameworks are based on xenophobia, Islamophobia and fear of globalization. It exploits vulnerable people who feel endangered of being left behind by the rapidly changing economy. As families feel increasingly threatened by automation, many are manipulated by polarizing ideologies that blame immigrants, descendants of slaves, and refugees for the problems of society. Germany’s support of immigrants, for example, led to the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AFD) party as a backlash.

European children are struggling to find their place in a culture of increasing xenophobia. I spoke with students at the Ernst-Abbe-Gymnasium in Berlin’s Neukölln District – an area with a high Ethnic-German and Middle Eastern population that’s currently threatened by gentrification (Figure 1). Founded in 1899, two-thirds of the students have an immigration background. The students I spoke with expressed how much more comfortable they feel in this school rather than other traditional schools in Berlin. They shared that in certain neighborhoods they are bullied and ostracized for their beliefs and backgrounds. This is particularly true for students wearing the hijab who are vulnerable to verbal abuse or worse. Schools like Ernst-Abbe-Gymnasium give immigrant youth a better chance of finishing school and going on to an apprenticeship or university and not becoming a statistic of youth unemployment. The need for the school also speaks to the need for support for immigrant families in German society and illuminates that more must be done to ensure that they feel included as full citizens in society.


Figure 1. American Marshall Memorial Fellows listening to Muslim and immigrant students at Ernst-Abbe-Gymnasium. The school is a safe haven for immigrant children in Berlin. (Photo: Kelwin Harris)

Another organization working towards solutions that we visited in Berlin is the ReDI School of Digital Integration. ReDI is a non-profit founded in 2016 that teaches young refugees from places like Syria to code. The program has been visited by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and is regarded as a model for refugee integration. ReDI leverages partners like Facebook, Microsoft and Bosch to offer IT programs, workshops, corporate trainings, mentorships and summer programs. The program allows corporations to fulfill their corporate responsibility goals while making refugees competitive for tech jobs and a better trajectory in society. Founder and Managing Director Anne Kjaer told us the biggest challenge is leading people into a future that remains nebulous. The future is even more uncertain for German refugees for whom it takes on average seven years to find a job.

Many partner companies hire refugees during or after the program through paid internships or full-time employment. The IT sector in Germany already has a dearth of employment vacancies and the industry is only expected to grow. Programs like this should be scaled to include other immigrant and marginalized youth as a viable pathway to success in the changing economy.



Brexit has impacted British government at every level. Many acknowledge that the government was out of touch with the underlying sentiments and frustrations of the people who voted for the landmark referendum to split from the EU. We sat down with the Chief Economist for the Bank of England, Andy Haldane who acknowledged and reinforced the government’s need to get more connected to the ethos of everyday citizens. As a result, The Bank of England has instituted a series of town halls to be more intentional about hearing the perspectives of everyday Brits. Understanding that populism is a response to political grievance, he uses the platform of a monetary institution usually only occupied with keeping prices stable to perform outreach to uncommon places. Travelling through the cities and backwaters of the UK listening to citizens is now one of his main jobs. He takes graphic illustrators along with him to make the conversations fun and engaging. He is also working on an emerging curriculum for students. All this effort is designed to anticipate concerns and prevent catastrophic experiments with national consequences like Brexit from happening again. Such campaigns can be effective if followed with action and reflective change. While I applauded Mr. Haldane’s approach, I stressed to him the importance of quickly showing outcomes as a result of his process to keep faith and momentum and to prevent his efforts from backfiring.

I spoke with staff and officials with the City of London to get their perspectives on outreach in the city. I met with the Outreach Manager for The Greater London Authority (GLA), Jeanette Bain-Burnett. The GLA is the administrative body for the Greater London area and is responsible for carrying out the Mayor’s vision with oversight from the 25-member London Assembly. Jeanette mentioned a key part of their mission is to reach “the invisible voices that aren’t heard”. This is done through citizen education and translation of how the GLA’s work impacts the lives of all residents and especially those hardest to reach. She explained the communities she’s most challenged with reaching include: Somalians, young Black males, Seniors, and Eastern Europeans. Outreach to these communities is a part of their Social Integration Strategy to promote equality, diversity and inclusion. The strategy is led by the Regeneration Team that seeks to create economic development interventions in communities that can be scaled throughout the city. The Greater London Authority also uses partnerships with local sports organizations to reach residents. The Strategy for London Sport achieves two goals: to increase the City’s network in communities more broadly and to improve public health outcomes through sports. Jeanette’s team also trains others at the GLA to be ambassadors in communities but mentioned this is a challenge when many departments are distracted by the uncertain effects of Brexit on their capacity.

I also talked with Abena Oppong-Asare, a dynamic young Black British woman and former City Councilor representing London’s Bexley Borough. She further explained The City of London’s challenge with outreach and managing public relations after an abysmal fire in Grenfell Tower, a public housing high-rise that became a deadly inferno when flames consumed the structure killing more than 72 people in June 2017. The public outcry was also aflame as community groups arose in protest and proclaimed that their complaints about the building had been ignored for years. She expressed that the City did not have the capacity to respond to the outpouring of angry and bereaved residents, organized stakeholders, and community leaders. As a result, the police and fire departments had to be deployed to do outreach and engagement which may have made matters worse. One survivors’ group, Grenfell United, continues to organize residents and petition the city for a diverse inquiry panel.


I also asked about outreach to communities when I met with Barcelona’s Director of Planning, Innovation and Social Policy, Josep Villarreal Moreno. He’s focusing his efforts on helping some of the neighborhoods that need it most. One such community is Nou Barris, a district with the largest Romani community that suffers from high poverty and unemployment. Another area of focus is El Besòs i el Maresme which suffers from numerous social challenges and where life expectancy is 8 years fewer than the rest of Barcelona. One way he and his staff address outreach to communities like these is through Citizens Agreements. He identifies key organizations with strong leadership throughout Barcelona that offer good community resources. He then solicits them for ideas and goals that they would like to accomplish. He then asks them to sign formal agreements to work on projects to address issues that they care about. So far, projects range from addressing homelessness to supporting children impacted by violence. The city currently has 160 of these projects completed or underway. This kind of participatory democracy and pre-baked community buy-in motivates members to work harder and more collectively.


In Bucharest, we talked to people who still have fresh memories of censorship, propaganda, and only being able to express their voices in praise and fidelity to dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who led the country until 1989. One person we talked to described life then as a “psychological prison” similar to North Korea today. Currency was immaterial and goods and services were stealthily bartered – a dentist might accept a carton of eggs for a tooth filling.

Communism in Romania relied on a social system of control and suppression of independence. One foundation manager used the Pioneer Movement as an example of communist perversion of democratic civic engagement. Pioneers were a youth league similar to boy or girl scouts but with activities designed to psychologically condition youth for a life under communism. Starting in elementary school, members were rewarded for picking crops, cleaning parks and singing paeans to the party leaders. For many people involved in organizations like this, it’s difficult for them to trust a new system like Democracy. As a result, civic participation in Bucharest today is anemic, philanthropic giving is almost non-existent and voter turnout is low, particularly among those 18-27 years old. This has fostered an environment of mistrust as citizens continue to feel oppressed for exercising freedom.

We sat down with leadership from the Romanian-American Foundation which has been investing in hard-to-reach communities in Romania for years. The foundation was created in 2009 by the US government to help formerly communist countries transition to a democratic market economy. Romanian-American Foundation President Roxana Vitan told us their goal and challenge is to teach an entrepreneurial spirit and understanding of markets to a people who were raised in a system where everything was planned for them. Program Director, Romeo Vasilache told me, “we are living in a free country [now], and learning to be free”.

To help empower Romanians and move them towards independence, the Romanian-American Foundation supports 16 local community foundations. Their model is to build capacity among community organizations by helping them organize into independent community foundations that can be self-sustainable. Their assistance includes training in corporate governance, teaching fundraising techniques, and providing matching grants. So far they have supported local farmers, agricultural schools, eco-tourism and biodiversity initiatives and entrepreneurial training programs. Foundation partners can be effective in bridging cultural divides and helping communities build capacity. Continued partnerships like these will lead to more stable democratic outcomes and ensure that all people are a part of the decision-making process.

Inclusive Growth


The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests that rising inequality took as much as 9 percentage points off growth in the UK from 1990-2015. In 2015 the average income of the top 10% was almost ten times more than the poorest 10%. Like Chicago, London suffers from severe income inequality and unequal benefits from growth. London boroughs are among the most unequal despite higher average incomes than many peers. There are extreme examples of rich living alongside poor within the same borough in places like Haringey and Cardiff – in some cases divided by railroad tracks. This has had cascading implications on health, education and overall quality of life for residents.

I discussed this dynamic with Anthony Painter, President of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The RSA has a storied history of civic leadership in the UK. It was established in 1754, has an official Royal Charter, and counts among its past fellows: Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Painter shared with me that the RSA today considers itself a think tank for social change. They used their authority and convening power to start the Inclusive Growth Commission, a 12-month inquiry into how economic inclusivity can drive growth and productivity in the UK. The Commission published a report in 2017 showing that 55% of households in the UK could be classified as working poor. They also showed that the cost of poverty in the UK could be £78bn (approximately $95bn US) annually. Their research proved that the benefits of prosperity enjoyed by the wealthy do not “trickle down” to the poor and that growth that includes the widest possible range of participants produces the greatest economic outcomes.

Mr. Painter has a good familiarity with Chicago issues. He wrote a book in 2009 on the life of Barack Obama (Barack Obama: The Movement for Change) and did extensive research on the south side of Chicago chronicling the former President’s days as a community organizer in places like Altgeld Gardens. We talked about some of the challenges to achieving inclusive growth and equity in Chicago. He told me he’s encouraged by the work of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning in driving an inclusive growth framework for the region, but stressed the importance of accurately targeting intervention and having measurable indicators that are reasonable and attainable. He emphasized the need to advance outreach and engage as many community organizations as possible. He also highlighted the need to address the education and skills gap as technology and globalization threaten to leave many poorer people behind.

In order to advance these goals, RSA has adopted a model started in Chicago with support from The MacArthur Foundation called Cities of Learning. This model focuses on activating the entire ecosystem of a city to create a support network that encourages lifelong learning. This includes not only relying on academic institutions to train people for jobs of the future but a coterie of other institutions like corporate partners, libraries, museums, non-profits, and community organizations. This model galvanizes a broad constellation of resources and actors around a shared social contract to support the lifelong development of its citizens. The model offers residents the chance to build skills at these institutions by providing a menu of enrichment options. Recognition for achievement is built-in through “digital badges” recognizable by employers and marketable in the job market. This model disrupts standard rewards for academic merit and redefines traditional education as the only means to achieving a high-quality job. For those whom this approach still does not benefit, the RSA is exploring Universal Basic Income as a viable solution and looking at models in Finland, Glasgow and Edinburg.

The inclusive growth model framework presented by the RSA is a good foundation for cities in targeting their equity strategies and making the case for intentionally focusing resources on economically disconnected people. The RSA is showing that inclusive growth is not only the right thing to do but good for the economy and political stability.


Like Chicago, Barcelona has a history of being a bustling industrial city that successfully transitioned into a global city. Both cities responded to change by moving towards an economy based on innovation and entrepreneurship. Barcelona experienced particularly strong employment growth between the 1980s and 2000s – adding 1.2 million jobs while inequality decreased as measured by the Gini index. The city has been less successful however since the 2007 financial crisis, and inequality and unemployment have risen dramatically. The OECD in 2012 declared that GDP in Barcelona was below pre-crisis levels and unemployment had doubled.

Barcelona’s attractiveness as a global destination dates back to the 1992 Olympics. Their ability to use that moment as an opportunity to drive growth was highly successful. The primary sector that saw some of the highest growth after the Olympics was tourism, which is currently 12 percent of GDP. While the city embraces the success of tourism and the economic activity generated by it, crowds of rowdy visitors temporarily enjoying the city’s sights, beverages and gastronomy to the fullest can be a major disruption for local residents. Tourism has led to major street congestion and locals frequently complain they can hardly walk during summer months.

Tourism has also contributed to uneven growth in Barcelona and has driven up prices for housing in certain communities contributing to gentrification. Barcelona’s historic Gothic Quarter, for example, has lost 47 percent of its original population. Foreign investors notorious for buying properties that often sit vacant for tax shelters in places like Barcelona, London and Portugal have reduced the amount of affordable housing available in the city. 60 percent of real estate investment in Barcelona comes from abroad. Barcelona does not have a public or social housing system to support people who can’t afford homes so a culture of high homeownership and a scaffolding of family support keeps many from being homeless. Many young people live in their parent’s household well into adulthood.

The Barcelona city council recently proposed a strategy to impose sanctions and ultimately acquire repossessed properties owned by banks. The city has also restricted new Housing Used for Tourism (or HUT) licenses in certain parts of the city where the tourist-to-resident ratio is severely imbalanced. The City is also encouraging tourism activity in parts of Barcelona that have not benefited from economic growth. This is designed to redistribute economic activity from tourism to areas that need more revenue. While for many cities, too many visitors with money to spend is a great problem to have, Barcelona’s strategy of using tourism to spread growth in forgotten parts of the city could be as successful and scalable as their Olympic vision.

One person working to address some of Barcelona’s issues was our city coordinator, Mateu Hernandez Maluquer. Mr. Maluquer is the former CEO of Barcelona Activa and current CEO of Barcelona Global, a private and non-profit partnership made up of hundreds of civic institutions and professionals focused on making Barcelona more economically competitive. He invited us to his house for dinner where he discussed the current political situation in Barcelona in the context of the Catalonia region. As we sat in his beautiful home just off Las Ramblas having dinner at one-o’clock in the morning, surrounded by walls of modern art made by his father, he reminded us that the nation’s former President, Carles Puigdemont, was currently in exile in Belgium. This was a result of a controversial resolution for independence that was passed by the Parliament of Catalonia in October of 2017 and was later deemed unconstitutional. He explained how, like Brexit in the UK, the city is burdened under a cloud of political confusion and uncertainty.

Spanish unemployment is at 21 percent and youth unemployment is a shocking 44 percent. Ambitious young people often seek jobs elsewhere in cities like London with more opportunities for upward mobility. The majority of available jobs are short-term temporary contract-based employment in industries like tourism or jobs such as couriers or waiters. People in this kind of employment are generally called working poor or “precariat”. Unlike Mr. Painter at RSA in the UK, Mr. Hernandez rejects Universal Basic Income as a solution. He supports policies that increase jobs and incentivize workers to pursue traditional work for dignity and social stability.

Later that week, we visited Mr. Maluquer’s previous employer, Barcelona Activa. Created in 1986, Barcelona Activa is a local economic development agency created by the Barcelona City Council to create economic development strategies and spur job creation in the Barcelona Metropolitan Area. They do this by providing job training and connecting job seekers with employers through their main office and local satellite offices in communities. They also offer entrepreneurship training and support for companies and start-ups seeking to locate in Barcelona. I spoke with several leaders in this organization including, Cristina Gil Adelantado, Head of the Business Support Office and Josep Maria Marquès i Ferrer, Director of Organizational Development. I inquired about their economic development strategies for making residents of Barcelona more competitive in the changing economy. They quickly pointed to the minimum wage in the city – currently a little more than €700 ($835 US). They made clear that this is not enough for a person to live and are advocating for an increase to €1000 ($1,192). They also talked about their challenges fighting gentrification and creating an environment for new business investment. They shared that some of their biggest business sectors include: tourism, retail, financial services, bio-technology and call centers. Currently over 7,000 foreign companies are located in Catalonia. When I asked what’s in Barcelona’s secret sauce for attracting investment they simply point to the beach. They reminded me that environment and quality of life matter. Entrepreneurs can work on the beach in their shorts and foreigners with capital consider Barcelona cheap. Call centers are attracted to Barcelona because of the variety of international languages they can access and the low minimum wage is an incentive for this industry. Employees are attracted to Barcelona for its Universal Health Care system, like London, and low cost of living compared to other major centers.

Like most people I spoke with, Adelantado and Ferrer were concerned with the uncertain future of jobs in Barcelona. They are preparing for the prospect of jobs disappearing. They used call centers again as an example. Jobs here are threatened by automated attendants that can answer questions from thousands of pre-programmed responses, alleviating the need for human workers. Unlike Mr. Hernandez, they are interested in exploring a Universal Basic Income pilot program as a potentially necessary safety net for the mass exit of jobs they predict in the near future.

A main tenet of Barcelona Activa’s economic development strategy is preparing citizens to be entrepreneurs through a network of start-up incubators. We visited the main, Glòries Incubator, located in a converted factory warehouse near the Plaça de les Glòries square in a former manufacturing district. The incubator has helped over 700 businesses get off the ground including the famed addictive cell phone game, Candy Crush. We were guided through the abundant workspaces and classrooms in the spacious facility and witnessed seasoned business owners teaching young entrepreneurs along with hordes of visiting young people learning the basics. Acceptance into Barcelona Activa’s incubators is competitive and new business proposals are vetted by reviewers each year for innovation and viability. The survival rate of businesses after four years is around 80 percent and many new businesses are incentivized to hire local Barcelonians, reducing the unemployment rate in the city.

A major part of the success of Glòries is their ability to successfully execute public-private partnerships and transform a manufacturing district into a creative one. With the support of the city council, the City rebranded and designated this area 22@. The district’s name is a play off of the previous 22a industrial zoning designation of the area. 22@ allows them to scale the success of Glòries and leverage their investment for future growth. Because of the success of Glòries, Barcelona Activa has opened additional incubators dedicated to specific sectors like media, technology, and robotics.

Memory and Responsibility


In 2016, Germany had the highest per capita income in the EU. It managed to maintain low inequality measures in 2000 but income gaps rose significantly. Despite its record employment rates, Germany’s Gini coefficient rose from .25 to .31 between 2000-2014. Some studies have shown that the lowest earners in the country have less money than they did 15 years ago. Germany now lags behind the Czech Republic, Sweden and Denmark in inequality with the top 20 percent making 5 times the bottom 20 percent from 2000-2016. Housing discrimination is prosaic and casual in Berlin. An African-American friend and former Bosch fellow from New York who has been living in Berlin for the past 3 years told me it can take over a year to find an apartment if you’re Black. She mentioned when new apartments are advertised, lines are around the block and are usually quickly given to young couples that landlords describe as “cute” according to German standards.

Berlin is one of the most fascinating and complex cities in the world.  The landscape is a panoply of byzantine geopolitical layers and almost every building and corridor has a narrative that reflects the complexity of its past. Berlin has struggled to transform its brutal historical baggage into a sophisticated modern metropolis that unwraps its past in plain view. Berlin’s history can be seen in its monuments, buildings, and remnants of the Wall that one can’t help but bump into everywhere. In some places sections were broken down and relocated throughout the city for display, while an inlaid brick network with brass plaques where the wall stood is a constant reminder of the city’s clash with itself (Figure 2). The Stolperstsubtein commemorative art project also uses the pavement for storytelling. The project subtly places brass cobblestones etched with the names of Nazi Holocaust victims in the pavement for walkers to literally stumble into (Figure 3). Isabel Wilkerson, in her book Caste describes that these stumbling stones “force the viewer to regard the entry doors the people walked through, the steps they climbed with their groceries and toddlers, the streets they strolled that were the everyday life of real people rather than abstractions of incomprehensible millions. Each one is a personal headstone that gives a momentary connection to a single individual. Leaning over to read the names on the stumbling stones forces you to bow in respect” (Caste p. 344).

The city also pays remembrance to the site of the The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 where heads of several European nations met in 1884-85 to carve out African nations for colonization. (Figure 4) The city’s free admission to numerous museums to its past is another example of Berlin’s willingness to confront its complicated story liberally. I visited three: 1. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 2. Topography of Terror (and Berlin Wall Monument), and 3. The German Resistance Memorial Center.


Figure 2. Pavement placard and distinctive cobblestones showing path of The Berlin Wall through the city. The Placard reads, Berliner Mauer 1961-1989) (Photo: Kelwin Harris)


Figure 3. Stolperstein brass “stumbling stone” in front of a home in Hamburg, Germany signifying someone (Mathilde Caroline Hedewig) was kidnapped or forcibly removed from a residence at that location under the National Socialist (NAZI) Regime. (Photo: Kelwin Harris)

berlin conference

Figure 4. Informational display in front of the site of The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 where several European nations met to divide control over African nations for colonization (Photo: Kelwin Harris)


As the center of the European Union and NATO and home to thousands of global NGOs, Brussels is the central nervous system of the European community. The City of Brussels is akin to Washington D.C., sixty percent of people work for government-related institutions but don’t live in the city and pay taxes elsewhere. Government workers are fortunate as the unemployment rate for the rest of the country is 20 percent and 28 percent live below the poverty line.

Brussels’ governance is as complicated as Berlin’s history. Brussels has a labyrinthine six government system: one at the national level, three regional governments and two that represent ethnolinguistic communities. There are three national languages in Belgium: Dutch, French and German. Geographic and cultural division exists between Dutch and French-speaking people. Language connotes social status and French is the dominant language. More than six million inhabitants are Flemish while the city has a large Moroccan and Turkish population. The regional governments of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital oversee agriculture, transportation, environment, energy and public works.

Brussels also grapples with its past in the landscape and especially its relationship to the victims of colonialism. Having previously colonized the Congo and subjected its people to brutality and genocide, the city currently has a large population of Congolese people living in communities like Le Matongé. Le Matongé is an African and Belgo-Congolese center of art, culture and society located steps from EU administrative buildings and the high-end shopping street, Avenue Louise. The community sits in the shadows of former colonial administrative buildings, and banks that financed colonial operations under King Leopold II still exist.

We walked along Avenue Louise past Michael Kors, Cos and Hugo Boss boutiques to arrive in Le Matongé. The community takes its name from a local café named after a neighborhood in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The community’s origins as an African center can be traced back to the Maison Africaine, meaning African House (Figure 5). The house was started by philanthropist Monique Van der Straten in 1961 to support graduate students of Congolese and African descent in Brussels. The house still exists as an important resource for students and the entire community. Monthly free food distributions are provided to all residents through a partnership with the Brussels Brabant Food Bank.

As Le Matongé expanded, restaurants, cafes and amenities grew up around the house to support the African population. Le Matongé became a safe space for people of African descent to support each other, trade stories and books, buy traditional clothes, eat common foods, get hair cuts and preserve tradition.


Figure 5. Exterior of the Maison Africaine building that Le Matongé’s community was built around. The non-profit sponsored building has provided housing and social services for students and the community since 1961. (Photo: Naimah Wade)

Maintaining tradition was vital as the people of Le Matongé have lasting memories of imperialism and White supremacy on display. When Brussels held the Expo 58 or “The Brussels World Fair” in 1958, they recreated a Congolese Village as an exhibit. This is often referred to as a “Human Zoo” where interested fair-going voyeurs could view confined Africans as a token of the country’s investment in the continent. Some of the nearly 300 Africans brought to the Expo were housed in Le Matongé.

Today Le Matongé is a bustling community of diverse people from all over the world. Approximately 40 African nationalities, along with Pakistanis, Indians and Latin immigrants call this neighborhood home (Figure 6). The rich arts, culture and heritage in Le Matongé must be protected so that vital traditions aren’t lost for future generations.

la matonge

Figure 6. Street scene in Le Matongé neighborhood in Brussels (Photo: Kelwin Harris)

Like Berlin, brutal symbols that evoke hard memories demand confrontation and Brussels is responsible for offering opportunities for healing and reconciliation. The most noteworthy symbols to be addressed bear the likeness of Belgium’s second king, Leopold II. Leopold established the Congo Free State in 1885 as a private venture to explore colonizing the African Congo at the dawn of the industrial revolution. His exploitation of rubber made Belgium very wealthy, but the carnage inflicted on the Congolese people in its production was dramatic. The epic devastation has been estimated at as many as ten million deaths in approximately ten years. Joseph Conrad’s observations of the horrors he witnessed while there inspired him to write Heart of Darkness.

What’s more complex are the statues, public spaces and cafés in the city that glorify and bear Leopold’s name. The most prominent icon is a regal equestrian statue where he sits prominently overlooking the city not far from Le Matongé (Figure 7). The statue possesses no historical context nor counter narrative from the standpoint of the Congolese people. Our tour guide was aware of the conundrum and irony of having Leopold’s towering likeness so near Le Matongé. She explained that many people feel that the statue should remain as a memorial to past atrocities and a reminder that they shouldn’t be repeated. This argument falls short as the only message one reads from the statue is glorification. The average visitor without deliberate investigation would never ascertain anything but the noblest image of Leopold and never know the forgotten and exploited bodies his figure stands upon. Like many of the lionizing statues to slaveholders in the United States, Brussels has to reckon with its monuments to King Leopold II and confront his humanitarian failures with as much vigor and truth as Berlin does Hitler. Brussels must accept its responsibility to confront its colonial past in a bold and intentional way for its own integrity and for its African residents who struggle to feel like full citizens.


Figure 7. Equestrian statue of King Leopold II in the shadows of Le Matongé community in Brussels. A guide in front explains the statue’s controversial irony. (Photo: Naimah Wade)

Also noteworthy, our tour guide pointed out how Belgian chocolates can be traced to Europe’s colonial past. In the city of Ypres, Belgium, I bought a bar of Brussels’ most popular off-the-shelf chocolate, Côte d’Or. The product is offered in numerous permutations and their iconic elephant logo dominates the abundant varieties of other brands on store shelves. The brand was founded by Charles Neuhaus, the oldest chocolatier in Belgium, in 1883, and is currently owned by Mondelēz International. The product showcases its connections to its colonial African past through its name and iconography. The name is pseudo French and stands for “Gold Coast” which is the former name of contemporary Ghana. As colonies, Europeans used African countries like The Congo and Gold Coast to produce chocolate that wouldn’t grow in northern climates. The company’s elephant and palm tree logo motif on their packaging mimic the African namesake’s coat of arms (Figure 8). To further illustrate the connection to Africa, the company launched a chocolate bar product called “Congobar” with an African man in a white suit as its mascot in the 1940s when Belgium was occupied by Germany. The company’s website explains the colonial heritage as, “At the beginning of the 20th century, with the colonial expansion, Belgians discovered new tastes. They are enthusiastic about the now famous ‘elephant chocolate’”. While the company romanticizes the expanded pallet that African chocolate brought Belgian consumers, they fail at acknowledging the true cost to Africans involved in its production or any responsibility to them.


Figure 8. A raison and hazelnut Côte d’Or chocolate bar. The packaging showcases the product’s colonial origins through its name, logo and imagery. (Photo: Kelwin Harris)

One way that Congolese and other Africans are asserting their freedom in Brussels is through art. The Bozar Fine Arts Center has developed programming with leadership from the Congolese community to promote healing and cultural expression. Bozar has been a multidisciplinary fine arts center in Brussels since 1928. It’s the oldest and largest arts center in Belgium and is one of the country’s seven federal cultural institutions under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister. Bozar calls itself a house of culture and debate. The center is multi-disciplinary and includes exhibition space, an art gallery and a theatre for music and dance. They created a “Black Artlantic” festival called Afropolitan that celebrates African culture through the visual and performing arts inspired by Professor Paul Gilroy’s book, Black Atlantic. Bozar shows that using arts center to bridge a cultural divide can be effective but also complicated when the center is government-funded. The institution received some resistance and was asked to curtail a celebration of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of Independent Congo who was highly critical of the Belgium government.

I spoke with Bozar’s Africa Desk Advisor, a Franco-Togolese journalist, Ayoko Mensah, over coffee in their beautiful Beaux Art building. She and some members of her team told me what a challenge it is to obtain a credible narrative of Congolese history and culture in the city. They explained that most Congolese are told a sanitized version of colonialism in school books and ironically know more about African-American culture through television than they do their own. She explained how there is a debate as to whether to celebrate American Black History Month in February while still not defining their own narrative. They expressed a desire to build more cultural bridges with the African-American community in Chicago.

Hip Hop culture and Chicago House music have long been an important influence in the cultural identity of the black diaspora in Brussels. Belgian music producer, Jo Bogaert, and Congolese Hip-Hop artist, Ya Kid K, borrowed heavily from sounds they heard coming out of the Chicago House music scene and blended it with American Hip Hop elements to create a hybrid for their 90s Hip-House group Technotronic. Utilizing music as a means of storytelling and preserving cultural identity remains an important part of Congolese artistic expression in Belgium. This has continued to this day. Ayoko and the Africa Desk at Bozar collaborated with Hip Hop artist and actor Pitcho Womba Konga on a festival and artistic movement called “Congolisation” that celebrates and expands the narrative of the Congolese people in Belgium to the struggles of all Africans on the European continent. The Congolisation Movement’s website describe the project as: “a movement that joins forces with Africans and Europeans interested in allowing each one to tell freely her/his version of a story.” Institutions like Bozar and artists like Pitcho are taking great strides in creating a true identity for Africans in Brussels but the city has a long way to go in establishing an environment of inclusivity where all citizens feel like equal participants.


Bucharest is a city still transitioning from communism. It is the largest post-socialist city in the EU. The city suffers from inequality and unequal growth while retaining a charm that dates back to the period between World War I and World War II when Bucharest was called “The Paris of The East” for its elegant mix of Baroque, Bauhaus and Art Deco architectural styles and its tree-lined boulevards. Communism redefined this image by introducing prefabricated concrete block houses that are ostensibly crumbling (Figures 9 & 10). After communism, tenants were allowed to privatize these units. This contributed to widespread homeownership but the process was surrounded by chaos as some units had multiple previous occupants staking their rightful claims all at once.

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Figures 9 & 10. Communist-era block–style housing in Bucharest (Photos: Kelwin Harris)

I sat down with Mircea Geoana, President of the Aspen Institute Romania, former Romanian presidential candidate and former Ambassador to the United States. A charismatic man, he bragged that Bucharest has a larger GDP than Berlin and Madrid. Bucharest’s economy is diverse and includes industries like light machinery, auto assembly, financial services, information technology and telecom. Mr. Geoana explained how Romania has some of the fastest internet speeds in the world but the quality of roads and infrastructure are poor. He said that the city is working to restore the poor housing stock but progress can’t come fast enough with so many dilapidated units. Romania also suffers from a “brain drain”, as younger skilled professionals like doctors and nurses seek opportunities in places abroad like Canada and Australia. Mr. Geoana was hopeful about growth but admitted the gains are uneven. He is very right in this regard. Romania had the highest economic growth in the EU in 2016 while a quarter of the population lives in poverty and youth unemployment is 22 percent. Like many people I spoke with, Mr. Geoana described Bucharest as a kleptocracy. City leaders often expect bribes for basic services. Even doctors anticipate incentives to care for one patient over another. As one civic leader told us “don’t get sick in Bucharest”.

Romania has a large Romani or “Roma” community. The Roma were persecuted like Jews during the period of Socialism. There are estimates that 200,000 to 1.5 million Roma were murdered during the Holocaust. Persecution of Roma people in Romania date back to the 13th and 14th centuries when they were used as slaves by the Orthodox Church. Often referred to as “gypsies”, Romani people still struggle to overcome stereotypes and degradation in Romanian society.

Women are another group that experience degradation in daily life in Bucharest. This was a consistent theme when talking to local leaders and everyday people. Women are viewed as second class citizens and the culture is one of parochial chauvinistic male-dominance and control. This is ironic as women make up the majority of the population in Romania. Women are expected to be servile and one in four women have been physically assaulted by their partner. One city coordinator explained that it’s not uncommon for a woman to be seen running from a man down the street and later captured and beaten without intervention from neighbors. The European Court of Human Rights is critical of Bucharest’s tolerant reputation however cases of abuse are often unreported. Gender inequality takes place in the workplace as well. Women make up only 1.7 percent of high-ranking officials in leadership.

We visited two social enterprises in Bucharest doing great work at providing pathways to opportunity for both women and Romani citizens. MamaPan Bakery  – a partnership with Romania’s Equality Partnership Center – offers breads and pastries based off traditional Romanian recipes made by single mothers who have fewer options for obtaining full-time employment in the traditional marketplace. The bakery is challenged by limited production as it’s difficult to hire women to work nights as they have to be at home with their children. We encouraged them to seek youth in the community who would benefit from working in the bakery part-time at night while gaining work experience to keep production going.

We visited another social enterprise call Mestesukar BoutiQ which locates traditional craftspeople from the Romani community and contracts with them to make finely crafted products sold at their boutique. Managers at the store explained that their crafts keep the narrative of the Roma people alive in an environment where they are often despised. Through their collection, they maintain traditions and bring dignity to the Roma community.

Like Brussels, Bucharest’s relationship to its past is opaque. Bucharest was a Nazi puppet state but the city’s Holocaust Memorial sits quietly off the beaten path with little signage nor a definitive narrative (Figures 11 & 12). The message they want visitors to take away is unclear and unresolved. There were no attendants when we arrived and the single door in front was ajar for anyone who descended the steps to peer in. Similarly, The Memorial of Rebirth, which commemorates the Romanian Revolution of Dec. 21, 1989 – where armed protesters overthrew communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu – is remembered by a crumbling and confusing monument abased by skateboarders and graffiti taggers (Figures 13 & 14).

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Figures 11 & 12. The Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest with subtle signage. (Photos: Kelwin Harris)

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Figures 13 & 14. The crumbling Memorial of the Rebirth in Bucharest abused by skateboarders and graffiti taggers. (Photos: Kelwin Harris)

Automation and Jobs

Many citizens across Europe today feel frustrated and voiceless in the face of heightened global dynamics and rapid change. As technology transforms the way that many people work, traditional jobs are increasingly threatened. This enhances tensions among polarized citizens and leaves them vulnerable to populist ideologies. SEAT Inc., a subsidiary of the German Volkswagen Group and one of Catalonia’s biggest employers (with 13,000 employees) has automated approximately 80 percent of production. SEAT is addressing fears while preparing their workforce for change through a publicly and privately funded R&D training centre designed to keep workers up-to-date on new technologies as they emerge. I asked a company representative how they see the future of automation affecting their workforce in the next ten years. She informed me that things are changing so rapidly that they can’t predict the next two years, much less ten. City officials predict that 70% of the jobs available to present youth will be in fields that aren’t yet created by the time they grow up and enter the workforce.

German companies address this challenge by offering apprenticeships for youth that lead to careers from an early age. A quarter of employers provide formal apprenticeships in Germany and nearly 2/3 of school children participate in them. As an article in The Economist entitled Left Behind points out, “Students in vocational schools spend around three days a week as part-time salaried apprentices of companies for two to four years. The cost is shared by the company and the government, and it is common for apprenticeships to turn into jobs at the end of the training.” Also noteworthy is that there is no stigma associated with doing apprenticeships versus going to a traditional college. Apprenticeships can last for three years and youth can still go to traditional universities if they choose. The average wage is €36,000 ($43,000 US) before taxes. Employers prefer apprenticeships because they groom workers and build a sense of loyalty.

We visited the headquarters of MENZEL Elektromotoren, a specialized manufacturer and exporter of large custom built industrial electric motors in Berlin since 1927. MENZEL is a family-owned company in the tradition of the German “Mittelstand”. These small and mid-size employers are a key part of the backbone of the German economy and are relied upon to provide job training and employment for generations of German families. They are also less vulnerable to automation because they’re so specialized. We spoke with a young man who participated in MENZEL’s apprenticeship program who now works there full-time. He mentioned that he was encouraged to do an apprenticeship at an early age by older role-models. He spoke with pride in achieving his professional certificate and was poised to spend the rest of his career at MENZEL. Though this appeared to have a positive outcome for the young man, MENZEL struggles with attracting women to the program and the environment is highly male-dominated. The leadership could not articulate a diversity strategy aside from saying they seek to attract the best people regardless of gender, race, etc. Apprenticeships like the one at MENZEL have contributed to ameliorating Germany’s youth unemployment rate which is some the lowest in the Eurozone. Apprenticeships alone however can’t level the skills gap and protect workers from a rapidly changing economy that few can predict.

Next Steps

The threat to democracy and freedom in the US and EU has never been so desperately threatened. Real threats to our economies and democracy require new strategies for the road ahead. While populist charlatans are emerging on both sides using xenophobic separatist dogma as a weapon for political advantage, everyday people are suffering.  Acerbic nationalist rhetoric makes gaining trust all the harder for people and organizations doing good work at the national and local level. The job is even more difficult in environments where people have been conditioned under communism. City leaders must intentionally work towards inclusive growth and fight the wave of hate targeted at the most vulnerable in our populations. We must confront our pasts and tell our most difficult stories with honesty and truth for our collective integrity and the healing of those who remain harmed. We must listen to the most suppressed voices to preserve the fragile transatlantic relationship and prevent our democracies from further dismantling before our eyes.

On March 8, 2018, I visited the convening of the 25 member London Assembly in London’s City Hall and sat in on a hearing where Mayor Sadiq Khan, along with Transport for London Commissioner Mike Brown and Deputy Mayor, Transport Val Snowcrass, defended the Mayor’s Draft Transport Strategy. Below are some of the main themes and goals that Mayor Khan shared for The City of London:

  • Reducing driving in the center of the city
  • Improving air quality through clean vehicles
  • Improving electric vehicle infrastructure (i.e., charging stations)
  • Reducing the number of parking spaces
  • Promoting Healthy Streets and Complete Streets
  • Promoting walking, biking, and using public transit
  • Supporting Vision Zero and reducing and eliminating pedestrian and bike fatalities
  • Keeping transit fares affordable and freezing any increases
  • Promoting accessibility (100% of London Tube is “step free” or wheelchair accessible)
  • Addressing knife-related crimes on public transit

Planning Resources

View additional pictures

Brussels Colonial Tour videos

Published by Kelwin Harris

Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.

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